November 15, 2017

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | A Protestant weighs in on protest

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To the editor:

As a Lutheran pastor, I have protest in my blood. After all, Lutherans were the first “Protestants,” protesting articles of faith which we believed were wrong. In fact, the entire Protestant Reformation began with a public call for a debate when 95 Theses were nailed to a Wittenberg church door by an Augustinian monk who also served as a Roman Catholic priest and a professor at the fairly new college at Wittenberg.

I was surprised to hear that a similar set of circumstances — a call for debate, eventually leading to protest — was fermenting at the Cornell campus.

An abortion debate to be held this week at Goldwin Smith Hall, (jointly sponsored by organizations representing both sides of the issue), is being protested by the Cornell affiliates of Planned Parenthood.

At first, I thought this must be an urban legend. Who would protest a debate?! Much less, who would protest a debate on a college campus where debates occur formally and informally all the time. In fact, a strong argument can be made that the entire academic endeavor is based upon theory, research, and debating that research. Without debate, the academic integrity of the campus would be extinguished.

But, sadly, I was wrong. The Cornell University Democrats Facebook page and the Planned Parenthood Generation Action at Cornell Facebook page are both calling for protesters to let their voices be heard that such a debate should not be held on campus.

What are we to make of this?

Are Planned Parenthood and the Cornell Democrats against diversity or diverse opinions? One guaranteed way to eliminate diversity is to squelch free speech. Could that be the goal? I doubt it. Isn’t free speech a Democratic ideal? Then what might be the other possible motives calling for protest?

Is it that Planned Parenthood is so certain their position is right, that it cannot be challenged? Unlikely. I believe most Planned Parenthood supporters recognize that there are thoughtful people who question the morality of abortion. Interestingly, different Lutheran denominations do disagree about the subject but still strive to be thoughtful, intellectual, spiritual, faithful — and willing to listen to the other side.

One other possibility is that the protesters are concerned that their position is fragile and untenable. Yet this theory has the internal weakness that the protesters may not be aware of specific arguments that Stephanie Grey will bring against Jonathan Peters or vice versa.

So why not listen to the debate?  Who knows?  Maybe the anti-abortion cohorts will lose pathetically, and Planned Parenthood and the Democratic Party will be swarmed with new affiliates and supporters? It could be a boon for them! One would think that if their position is morally right, and intellectually sound, they would encourage the debate for this very purpose.

In this day and age of contentious entrenchment and tweeting tirades, an open debate is actually refreshing. Two people taking the time to thoughtfully lay out their arguments and defend their positions is a practice that is sadly missing from much of public discourse, and political and media spin.

So instead of protesting the debate, welcome it, attend it, and treat others with respect.

The Protestant Reformation, which marked its 500th anniversary this October, had the distinction of being a process of debates, articles, and, for the most part, temperance in language and demeanor. Luther, the man who first called for debate and reluctantly allowed his name to be associated with a church body, did lament that he often spoke too harshly of his opponents.

As a Lutheran, I regret Luther’s sin of not “speaking the truth in love,” which is a significant New Testament tenet.  But let us, at least, permit the speaking to occur and pray that it may be true and loving. Protests can be that way.

Robert Foote
Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and Cornell affiliate chaplain